Who are the "Sheep" and "Goats"?

The Parable Matthew 25:31-46

The parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46 has been given a variety of interpretations. While respecting the views of others we wish to offer another opinion on the identity of the "sheep and goats" in the Nazareneís apocalyptic parable.

Some interpret the parable to apply to a period of testing and judging during the millennial reign of the Messiah. That is, during the thousand years. Others explain the parable describes two major groups: a remnant of the anointed Church -- the "brothers" of the parable; while the sheep are viewed as a group of Christians, a "great crowd" who are not anointed but who will live through the great tribulation to live on earth forever. (Revelation 7:9-17) [For details on these verse in the Book of Revelation see the publication Nazarene Apocalypse 2000©.]

Before reading the entire parable we observe that three parables precede this one. These parables are: the faithful slave (Matthew 24:45-51), the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-12), and, the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) Each of these parables have some similarities: a good and a bad group, the Parousia of the Lord. The moral of all of these seems summed up by Matthew 25:13, "Keep on the watch, therefore, because you know neither the day nor the hour." This seems reasonable since the last item the Nazarene discusses in his answer to his four apostlesí question is the need to remain awake and alert for his Parousia, or Return as King. (Matthew 24:32-44) In other words, these parables are related to the parousia-judgment: when the King returns he judges his own household first. (1 Peter 4:17)

Based on this context it would seem fair to conclude that the parable of the sheep and goats is also related to the Parousia and the Return of the Christ. We feel the parable deals with the judgment on the Household of Faith -- all those within the Realm of Profession, the "kingdom of the heavens," the Sonís domain or realm -- the Church itself. (Matthew 13:41-43) Thus, the sheep and goats are like the wheat and the tares (weeds) of the Nazareneís earlier parable. The sheep would be the same as the faithful slaves, the wise virgins, and the slaves who used their talents. The goats would be the same as evil slaves, the foolish virgins, and the unproductive slave with the single talent. Now consider the entire parable of the sheep and the goats.

Matthew 25:31 -- When the Son of man arrives in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit down on his glorious throne.

Could this be during or following the Thousand Years? We note the King arrives with all his angels. What period could this be? If this were during or following the Thousand Years why would the verse not read, "and all his Saints"? For, it is by the "Saints" that Messiah judges mankind in general. (1 Corinthians 6:2; Revelation 20:4,6) Because the Saints are absent here it would seem this prophetic moment is at the Parousia when the King arrives to judge his own household of faith. There will be a future moment when the King does come with his Saints. (Compare Revelation 17:14; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; Zechariah 14:5)

This "throne" is not that one mentioned at Revelation 3:21 which Jesus attained upon his ascension to heaven. (Acts 1:9-11; Daniel 7:13; Ephesians 1:20-23) This "throne" is the same as the one Paul mentions at 2 Corinthians 5:10, "For we must all be made manifest before the judgment seat of the Christ, that each one may get his award for the things done through the body, according to the things he has practiced, whether it is good or vile." Here Paul mentions those two groups in the Nazareneís parables: the good and the vile.

The beloved apostle also mentions these two groups in the judgment at 1 John 2:28; 4:17, "So now, little children, remain in union with him, that when (the Son) is made manifest we may have freeness of speech (in the day of judgment) and not be shamed away from him at his Parousia." Both Paul and John seem to draw upon the Nazareneís words at John 5:28, 29, which are drawn from Daniel 12:2. Compare these:

"The hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs [from Isaiah 26:19 LXX] will hear his voice and come out, those who did good things to a resurrection of life, those who practiced vile things to a resurrection of judgment." (John 5:28, 29)

"And there will be many of those asleep in the ground of dust who will wake up, these to indefinitely lasting life and those to reproaches [and] to indefinitely lasting abhorrence." (Daniel 12:2)

Thus it seems fair to conclude that upon Messiahís Arrival he first judges those who profess him as Lord. We note in the parable both the sheep and the goats address the Son of Man as "Lord" thus recognizing him as King. (Compare Matthew 7:21) This explains why the Saints are absent in verse 31 as they are present in Revelation 17:14.

Matthew 25:32 -- And all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

This verse, and its mention of "all the nations" is used by some to prove that the sheep and goats in the parable are not spiritual Israelites, but the Gentiles among mankind. However, may these "nations" be those locations where all the "chosen ones" or "elect" are found upon the Return of Christ. The Nazarene has already stated: "And then the Sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven ... and he will send forth his angels with a great trumpet sound, and they will gather his chosen ones [the Elect] together from the four winds, from one extremity of the heavens to their other extremity." (Matthew 24:31) It would seem our Lord is here paraphrasing Isaiah 11:12, "And (Messiah) will raise a Sign for the nations, and he shall gather the lost ones of Israel, and shall gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth." (LXX Bagster)

Thus the "nations" are those former ethnic backgrounds which has characterized all the anointed Saints throughout the Gospel Age. (Compare Acts 2:5) Revelation 7:9 describes those Saints (or, chosen ones) who survive the Great Oppression and are alive at the time of the Parousia: "After these things I saw, and, look! a great crowd, which no man was able to number, out of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb." Judging from the parallel language in Revelation 7:14 those "out of all nations" are the same as the "chosen ones" of Matthew 24:30, 31; and, those "dispersed of Israel" in Isaiah 49:6, 17 who "no longer thirst or hunger." (Compare Revelation 7:16).

Matthew 25:33 -- And he will put the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left.

Like the preceding parables there are two groups or classes: the good and the vile as noted in Daniel 12:2, John 5:29, 2 Corinthians 5:10, and 1 John 2:28. However, in the parable what makes the sheep good or righteous? Can we expect a catechism of beliefs or a long list of duties? First, though, note a further identifying feature of the "sheep."

Matthew 25:34 -- "Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you [plural] who have been blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world.

This blessing by the Father includes inheritance or possession of "the kingdom." (Daniel 7:27) What "kingdom" would this be? Some believe it is the earthly realm of the King during the Thousand Years. However, the Nazarene has already referred to this Kingdom of the Father in the context of the Parousia-judgment. Note Matthew 13:41-43: "The Son of man will send forth his angels [as in Matthew 24:31 and 25:31, 32], and they will collect out of (the Sonís) kingdom all things that cause stumbling and persons [the goats] who are doing lawlessness, and they will pitch them into the fiery furnace [compare Matthew 25:41]. There is where [their] weeping and the gnashing of [their] teeth will be. At that time the righteous ones [the sheep] will shine as brightly as the sun in the kingdom of their Father." (Compare Daniel 12:3) Is it not clear that the "wheat" here are the "righteous" and that these will ultimately "inherit (the Fatherís) kingdom"? Thus, the sheep are the same as the wheat; and, the goats the same as the tares (weeds).

That the "kingdom" in the parable the sheep inherit is heavenly is shown in the only other place where "inherit the kingdom" occurs. Note 1 Corinthians 15:50, 51, "However, this I say, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit God's kingdom, neither does corruption inherit incorruption ... in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, during the last trumpet." (See also 2 Timothy 4:18) So, is it fair to conclude that these sheep are those true Christians throughout the Gospel Age (or, history lof the Church) who now before the judgment seat of Christ may speak without shame or embarrassment. Now, what is it that made these sheep, "sheep"?

Matthew 25:35-40 -- For I became hungry and you gave me something to eat; I got thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you received me hospitably; naked, and you clothed me. I fell sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righteous ones will answer him with the words, 'Lord, when did we see you [singular] hungry and feed you, or thirsty, and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and receive you hospitably, or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to you?' And in reply the king will say to them, 'Truly I say to you, To the extent that you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'

First, it is clear that what made the sheep righteous was their charity and hospitality to those Jesus called "my brothers." Before passing on to this designation, let us never forget by what the sheep are judged: they saw strangers hungry, thirsty, cold, sick, or imprisoned and these they treated with love. No doctrinal creed is here listed. No list of works such as missionary efforts or evangelical campaigns. Simply: it was their charity.

But, who are those the King calls his "brothers. Some would make this another group, different from the sheep and goats. We see no reason to make this distinction. The Nazarene taught that his "brothers" were those who did Godís will. (Matthew 12:48, 49; Mark 3:33-35) Put simply, the sheep are also brothers of Christ (Hebrews 2:11) The Nazarene taught that he had come to find the "lost sheep of the house of Israel." (Matthew 10:6; 15:24)

An example of this is seen in Paulís conversion. He had been persecuting the Church and now on the Damascus road, the "Lord" says to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you keep persecuting me." (Acts 9:1-6) By persecuting the disciples Paul was persecuting Jesus. These disciples were his "brothers" doing the will of the Father. Right there Saul turned from a goat to a sheep. Paul included himself among the sheep. (Romans 8:36; Hebrews 13:20; compare 1 Peter 2:25)

There is a startlingly similarity between Jesusí words in Matthew 25:35-40 and Isaiah 56:6-8 that cannot be ignored. Note in Isaiah that Yahweh speaks by the prophet to the "house of Jacob" and that in the end charity and hospitality toward oneís "own flesh" is the point: "Is not this the fast that I choose? To loosen the fetters of wickedness, to release the bands of the yoke bar, and to send away the crushed ones free, and that you people (Israel) should tear in two every yoke bar? Is it not the dividing of your bread out to the hungry one, and that you should bring the afflicted, homeless people into [your] house? That, in case you should see someone naked, you must cover him, and that you should not hide yourself from your own flesh?"

If the Nazarene is quoting Isaiah here then the application of the parable of the sheep and goats is certainly that judgment upon "the Israel of God." (Galatians 6:16) But, what about the goats?

Matthew 25:41 -- Then he will say, in turn, to those on his left, 'Be on your way from me, you who have been cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.í

First, these words are similar to those Jesus uses regarding others who called him "Lord, Lord," on the day of the parousia-judgment. Note Matthew 7:21-23, "Not everyone saying to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter into the kingdom [that which the sheep inherit] of the heavens, but the one doing the will of my Father [the "brothers"] who is in the heavens will. Many [goats] will say to me in that day [of the parousia-judgment], 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and expel demons in your name, and perform many powerful works in your name?' And yet then I will confess to them: I never knew you! Get away from me, you workers of lawlessness." Compare these "workers of lawlessness" here with those "weeds" in Matthew 13:41. There is an additional similarity between the parable of the wheat and weeds and the sheep and goats: the weeds and goats end up with the same punishment. (Compare Matthew 13:30, 40) But, what makes the goats "goats"?

Matthew 25:42-46 -- For I became hungry, but you gave me nothing to eat, and I got thirsty, but you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger, but you did not receive me hospitably; naked, but you did not clothe me; sick and in prison, but you did not look after me.' Then they also will answer with the words, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not minister to you?' Then he will answer them with the words, 'Truly I say to you, To the extent that you did not do it to one of these least ones, you did not do it to me.'í And these will depart into everlasting cutting-off, but the righteous ones into everlasting life." The goats are goats in Jesusí parable here, not because they were evil, not because they taught false prophecies, but simply because they did nothing in the ay of charity. While the sheep saw the need and filled it with love, the goats, observing the same, failed to obey their Lordís commandments regarding love. (John 15:17)

This principle that failure to respond to the needs of fellow believers is stressed by James and John. Compare the two:

James 2:14-17, on what constitutes "works" of faith: "Of what benefit is it, my brothers, if a certain one says he has faith but he does not have works? That faith cannot save him, can it? If a brother or a sister is in a naked state and lacking the food sufficient for the day, yet a certain one of you [a goat] says to them: ĎGo in peace, keep warm and well fed,í but you do not give them the necessities for [their] body, of what benefit is it? Thus, too, faith, if it does not have works, is dead in itself." This corresponds exactly with the Nazareneís parable. Belief alone will be of no benefit. Faith without action is good as dead. The goats evidently possess faith for they address the King as "Lord." What they lack is charity and hospitality.

1 John 3:16-18, on how to remain in Godís love: "By this we have come to know love, because that one surrendered his soul for us; and we are under obligation to surrender [our] souls for [our] brothers. But whoever [a goat] has this world's means for supporting life and beholds his brother having need and yet shuts the door of his tender compassions upon him, in what way does the love of God remain in him? Little children [sheep], let us love, neither in word nor with the tongue, but in deed and truth." John was present at the giving of the parable of the sheep and goats and he seems to reflect or echo the same spirit here.

It is our conclusion, therefore, that the parable of the sheep and goats, like the three which precede it, deals with the parousia-judgment upon the Return of Christ to judge his own Household of Faith. The sheep and goats are limited to those Christian believers throughout the Gospel Age, or history of the Church from Pentecost to the Parousia. And so on "that day" will rise those sleeping greats of the ancient Christian world: the apostles of the Lord, the dear ladies who attended him, Paul and his fellow associates, the martyrs of the Gospel Age, Christians great and small throughout time. Both the righteous sheep and the unloving goats. Great Popes and clergy. Men of letters and Bible-reading plough-boys. Humble and insignificant widows and orphans overlooked by the great Church hierarchy. All these must stand before the judgment-seat of Christ and receive what is due to them for what they did in the flesh -- good or vile. (2 Corinthians 5:10). All will know whether they are guilty or not guilty. All will know there final and everlasting destiny.

Then, before our Lord, we will fall in one of two categories as John writes: "So now, little children, remain in union with him, that when (our Lord the King) is made manifest we may have freeness of speech and not be shamed away from him at his Parousia (presence)." It is our prayer that all our readers may be the former -- those unashamed and not embarrassed -- THE SHEEP!

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Nazarene Commentary 2000© by Mark Heber Miller

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